Tag Archives: science-fiction

Self-Consciousness And Can a Machine Have It

Hugh Howey explains Theory of Mind and how it relates to artificial intelligence. He says AI can do marvelous feats of computation, but it can’t and probably will never think like we do. He says it’s fun to describe our minds as computers, but that’s misleading.

Computers are well-engineered devices created with a unified purpose. All the various bits were designed around the same time for those same purposes, and they were designed to work harmoniously with one another. None of this in any way resembles the human mind. Not even close. The human mind is more like Washington, D.C. (or any large government or sprawling corporation).

Parts of our brain can compete with each other, and what we call the mind is all of the brain and more combined. He describes seasickness as part of the brain believing it has been poisoned and vomiting to defend itself, even though you may know without doubt you have not been poisoned.

Not only are we unable to control ourselves completely, we also talk to ourselves incompletely. “The explanations we tell ourselves about our own behaviors are almost always wrong,” Howey says, because we defend ourselves even against our better judgment.

All of this leads to how AI machines will not and should not become so man-like as to pass for human beings. “The only reason I can think of to build such machines is to employ more shrinks.”

Howey has a book of new and collected sci-fi stories out this month.

Sci-Fi and Man’s Abolition

I don’t remember when I read Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, but I remember agreeing with all of it.

Sam Edgin reviews the book’s influence on sci-fi film and literature in the essay collection Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man

The backbone of much of the science fiction we love are the questions Lewis asked: What do we do when technology gives us such powers that we are no longer able to identify that which is human? Or, even worse, at what point do we begin actively denying humanity around us for our own comfort or gain?

More Evidence Facebook Is Evil

“An artificial intelligence system being developed at Facebook has created its own language,” reports Digital Journal. “It developed a system of code words to make communication more efficient. Researchers shut the system down when they realized the AI was no longer using English.”

Whether the AI agents were actually saying anything of consequence is another matter. If they weren’t, this is just an interesting story of robot slang, which is a natural way to use language. But it’s still evil, natch. Robots talking among themselves in a language they developed themselves? That’s the definition of evil.

Sustaining Hope at the World’s End

Nick Ripatrazone writes about a few dystopian novels published in the past few years. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a group of actors struggle to survive and elevate the spirits of other survivors they find. Enter the villain, a religious huckster.

This leader of a doomsday cult reveals an interesting trope in the dystopian universe: it’s not enough for the world to end. That plot element is too grand, too distant. The characters need an immediate, human foil. Catastrophe turns them inward.

It’s the inner story that often most compelling.

The Catholic Sci-fi Author

R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002) stands out as a faithful Catholic who wrote science-fiction. Neil Gaiman called him “undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that ever there was.”

In her review of The Man with the Speckled Eyes, the fourth and newest volume of a collection of short stories, Helen Andrews describes the man and some of his ideas. (via Prufrock News)

Running throughout the book is Lafferty’s cyclical theory of world history. Mankind builds civilization generation by generation and, periodically, destroys what he has built, so cataclysmically that the next generation has to start from the beginning. Fourth Mansions, his novel based on Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, follows the same theory. Just as the individual soul ascends from mansion to mansion, mankind ascends through levels of civilization; the higher it gets, the more demons try to assail it. Teresa wrote of vipers and toads. In Lafferty’s cosmology, these are “tentacled liberalism (the python-hydra)” and “Communism, from underground (the toad with the tantalizing jewel in its head).”

Redshirts by John Scalzi

via GIPHY Warning posted: “Watch for Exploding Rocks.”

It’s a common sci-fi truism that the guy wearing a red shirt on a new away team mission will be killed. Of the original Star Trek series, Wikipedia reports, “59 crew members killed in the series,” of which “43 (73%) were wearing red shirts.” John Scalzi asks, what if those were actual lives in a galaxy far, far away?

In his comic novel, Redshirts, Scalzi spins the tale of several minor crewmen on the Universal Union flagship Intrepid who start to ask why their teammates act strangely when senior officers are looking for away team members. One guy who has hidden himself in the bowels of the ship has a crazy theory, but when none of the sane theories pan out, you go with the crazy one.

It’s a funny book, but I didn’t start laughing until at least halfway through it, and the ending parts stretched my patience almost to the point of putting it down unfinished. There’s a point when that weird joke has been explained enough and going over it again will just kill it. Unfortunately, this joke gets run over a dozen times. But there are sweet moments in those ending parts that may be worth reading, if you’re into that sort of thing. Heh.

‘The Star Fox,’ by Poul Anderson

The Star Fox

What I liked best about this book was that it’s a military science fiction novel written before political correctness. Thus, Poul Anderson’s The Space Fox is blessedly free of tiny little girls with mystic ninja skills who throw 200-pound men around in the manner of Summer Glau.

Centuries in the future, the earth is ruled by a Federation, which also has jurisdiction over various space colonies. One of the most promising of those colonies, New Europe (settled by Frenchpeople), has been conquered by an alien race, the Alerians. The Alerians report that all the human settlers have (unfortunately) been killed. The earth government, dominated by pacifists, is inclined to accept the fait accompli and cede the planet to them.

Gunnar Heim, industrialist, is not so sure. He knows New Europe and doesn’t find the Alerian story plausible. He expects that the humans there survive in the wilderness, and are waiting for relief from earth. When he meets a Hungarian folk singer who has brought evidence of just that, but can’t get a hearing from the government, he starts moving. With the help of a combative French (!) legislator, he concocts a scheme to exploit a loophole in the law to set out in his own war ship, the Space Fox, becoming a latter-day privateer.

The Star Fox was recommended to me by a friend as right up my alley, and it has numerous theoretical attractions for me. It was written by a Danish-American who grew up partly on a Minnesota farm. The hero, Gunnar, is a Norwegian-American who lapses into Norwegian in his conversation from time to time. And it was written as a commentary on the Vietnam War, which Anderson supported, as did I.

And yet, I didn’t love it as much as I should have. I don’t know what it is that puts me off about Poul Anderson. I’m in the habit of criticizing his characters, but I couldn’t really find fault with the characters here. Gunnar especially is very well drawn, and I was even moved by his troubles from time to time. Yet when I was finished, I had no great yearning to pick up another Anderson. So I guess it’s just me.

On that understanding, I recommend The Star Fox. In keeping with publishing norms in its time in history, it has no elements that make it unsuitable for any age of reader likely to enjoy it.

Uncurious Scientists Making Up Stuff

John C. Wright has a long essay on the suicide of thought, starting with the reason a group of natural scientists would believe geometry is empirical. Just to put the cookies on the bottom shelf, geometry is a logical science, which uses analytic reasoning. You don’t observe natural shapes and conclude the ratio of circles or hypotenuse of three-pointed things, and yet here was a group of scientists saying that’s where geometry is found.

Apparently they did this out of a commitment to materialism in opposition to rationalism or some combination of the two.

One of the many flaws in radical materialism is this: if radical materialism were true, radical empiricism must also be true, on the grounds that if nothing is real but matter, no knowledge is real except for knowledge about matter, and facts about matter can only be known by empiricism. But radical materialism is a universal metaphysical theory, and therefore cannot be known empirically, which means it cannot be known at all. Hence, if radical materialism were true, it is false.

It is a doctrine that refutes itself, something which the mere unambiguous statement of the terms proves false. No further argument is need, no other witnesses need be called.

Hence the final clue also fits the pattern, but also leads to a bigger mystery: the reasons why the teachers do not teach and the students do not learn about the basics of science is because of dogmatic yet illogical beliefs that cannot withstand such scrutiny that swirl about science.

These beliefs and beliefs like them are beliefs that make outrageous claims about the prestige of science, which is inflated to serve as a substitute religion. Such beliefs are called science worship. These beliefs flourish only in a dark age, when the lamp of reason is guttering or extinguished.

Science worshippers are not necessarily partisans of radical materialism and radical empiricism, but these and beliefs like them are friendly to science worship. Such beliefs dull the curiosity, encourage dismissive arrogance, or inspire bellicose narrowmindedness, which, in turn, forms a favorable environment to allow science worship to grow like mold.

Science worshippers do not do science, do not understand science, and are easily duped by junk science.

So, the lesser mystery of who killed Euclid now has to have a reasonable theory that fits the facts. Since teaching the truth about geometry and science would necessarily cast doubt on a cult belief about science worship that is prevalent in society, it can only be passed along from one uncurious mind to the next by indoctrination.

… Science worship is a symptom, but only one, of a deeper sickness that afflicts more than just one field of study, more than just one school of thought or more than just one topic.

A Sci-Fi Cuba as Earth Under New Management

For rent, one planet that’s lost its way in the race for development, that showed up at the stadium after all the medals had been handed out, when all that was left was the consolation prize of survival.

For rent, one planet that learned to play the economics game according to one set of rules but discovered once it started playing that the rules had been changed.

That planet in Yoss’ novel A Planet for Rent is a stand-in for 1990s Cuba. Emily A. Maguire describes the story of an unmanageable Earth. “In the interests of ‘saving Earth from itself,’ [aliens] have turned the planet, now a ‘Galactic Protectorate,’ into a vacation destination: Earth and its inhabitants exist solely to satisfy the desires of its alien visitors.” (via Prufrock News)

Rejecting the Roots of Science Fiction

I know, I know, I am a broken record about this stuff. But it never ceases to amaze me (in an unhappy way) how the so-called writers of Science Fiction, seem to be in such a huge hurry to run away from the roots of the field. I’ve read and listened to all the many arguments — pro and con, from both sides — about how Campbell rescued the field from the Pulp era, but then New Wave in turn rescued the field from the Campbell era. So it might be true that we’re finally witnessing the full maturation of SF/F as a distinct arena of “serious” literature, but aren’t we taking things too far? Does anyone else think it’s a bad idea for the field to continue its fascination with cultural critique — the number of actual nutty-bolty science types, in SFWA, is dwindling, while the population of “grievance degree” lit and humanities types, in SFWA, is exploding — while the broader audience consistently demonstrates a preference for SF/F that might be termed “old fashioned” by the modern sensibilities of the mandarins of the field?

Brad R. Torgersen, “The Martian and Mad Max

Primer, Watching Cold

I watched the 2004 movie Primer with barely any knowledge of it, which may be the best way to watch it. Shane Carruth wrote, directed, and stared in this detailed sci-fi story about four entrepreneurs who hope to make some kind of break-through on one of their garage-lab projects. When Abe discovers that a box they made does something unexpected, he tells Aaron and the two decide to pursue it. The scene below gives you a taste of the movie’s style while showing Abe and Aaron conducting their first experiment.

That’s the pace of the first quarter–realistic talk from scientific engineers who aren’t spelling anything out for the viewers at home. In this scene, I’m not sure Abe knows what’s going on yet, but he works it out and then tells Aaron everything. They’ve invented a time machine.

Since Abe draws this conclusion first, he experiments with the necessary components to make the box work, to make the box larger, and to survive within it–all before introducing it to Aaron.

That’s when the story goes from a bit tedious to mind-bending. Carruth hasn’t given us a simple lark about time-traveling engineers trying to better their lives or two ordinary guys trying to change the course of history. He’s written a story that pushes into the paradoxes bound to occur when someone breaks time’s linear progression.

For example, if someone could go back in time a day or a week in order to prevent a major crime or gain a windfall in the lottery or stock market, once he goes back to do this he removes his motive for going back. If on Saturday he decides to return to Monday in order to stop a crime and he succeeds, what happens when he returns to Saturday again? Having stopped the crime, he doesn’t have any reason to go back to Monday. So what happens? Are the first days overridden by the second? What he had discovered time travel during that week; would revisiting to Monday delay or prevent the discovery that enabled him to go back?

What if you began to see it the opposite way, as a way to avoid consequences? What if you could go back in time, punch a jerk who deserves it, and return to the same morning as if (no, because) none of it ever happened? What if you could press a reset button to undo everything you’ve done over the last several days?

Primer is a story about all of that, and while it’s easy to understand the danger presented at the movie’s conclusion, it’s difficult to follow everything occurring up to that point. What happens at the birthday party? Who is the guy following them? Where does the man who looks severely beaten come in? The story pushes into these paradoxes without full explanation, giving rise to explanatory videos like this one as well as webpages dedicated to spelling it all out.

Abe: “I’m not into the whole ‘destiny, there’s-only-one-right-way’ thing.”

Aaron: “Abe, I’m not either, but what’s worse? You know, thinking you’re being paranoid or knowing you should be?”

I enjoyed it overall, but it is dense. One reviewer said that though it’s a short movie, it feels longer due to the many details packed into every minute.

The CT 2016 Book Awards

Christianity Today has released the results of their annual book awards. Many attractive titles, including this one:

Science Fiction Theology: Beauty and the Transformation of the Sublime by Alan P. R. Gregory (Baylor University Press)

“Our culture is awash in science fiction. From post-apocalyptic young-adult blockbusters to hard sci-fi novels, the genre’s star has never burned more brightly. Science Fiction Theology demonstrates a masterful understanding of what makes it all tick. While the casual fan may find the book’s density off-putting, others will find themselves deeply edified by Gregory’s rigorous tracing of the dialogue between science fiction and Christianity. The dialogue, it turns out, is very lively, even when trafficking in distortions. The chapter on Philip K. Dick, an author criminally ignored by religious readers, is itself worth the price of admission.” —David Zahl, director of Mockingbird Ministries

(via Hunter Baker, who was a judge for these awards)

What’s Orbiting a Distant Star Will Astonish You

Or not.


Alien Armada by Bogwoppet on DeviantArt

Citizen scientists have been keen on a particular star since 2011 for its irregular light pattern, observed through Kepler Space Telescope. Irregular light patterns indicate object moving between us and the star, which could be planets, asteroids, tentacles of space squid, or the Borg. Any of those very realistic possibilities. The astronomers noted the star does not appear young, so debris surrounding young stars was ruled out. What could surround a mature star like this?

Jason Wright of Penn State suggested “the star’s light pattern is consistent with a ‘swarm of megastructures,'” Ross Anderson of The Atlantic reports, “perhaps stellar-light collectors, technology designed to catch energy from the star.

“When [Boyajian] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked. Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

The science-side of the Interwebs has been abuzz with this news, but what can be understood from this observation? An article published in Scientific American earlier this year, which mentions Wright’s research, states nothing has been found. Writer Lee Billings explains Wright’s team’s goal.

They looked for the thermodynamic consequences of galactic-scale colonization, based on an idea put forth in 1960 by the physicist Freeman Dyson. Dyson postulated that a growing technological culture would ultimately be limited by access to energy, and that advanced, energy-hungry civilizations would be driven to harvest all the available light from their stars. To do that, they might dismantle a planet or two as feedstock for building star-enveloping swarms of solar collectors. A star’s light would fade as it was encased in such a “Dyson sphere

Dyson himself is not discouraged by finding nothing. “Our imaginings about the ways that aliens might make themselves detectable are always like stories of black cats in a dark room,” he said. “If there are any real aliens, they are likely to behave in ways that we never imagined.”

Which means they probably aren’t hoping to eat us.

American Zombies: Enemies Next Door

Kurt Schlichter ruminates on our current obsession with zombies. Not long ago, many mainstream stories focused on foreign threats or nuclear fallout. Today, we entertain ourselves with mysterious outbreaks that turn people into flesh-eaters.

“What does it say,” Schlichter asks, “that our collective subconscious senses less of a threat from fanatical outsiders who, in the last couple decades, have killed thousands of us via terrorism, than from each other?

. . . The foreigners are a threat, but that’s under control. What is out of control, or what seems like it is out of control, is our society itself.”